Atomic veteran continuing the fight for benefits after denial from VA

Richard Simpson, of Hillsdale, holds a photo of an atomic bomb test within 500 meters of the trench he was in with his Marine Corps platoon in 1953. (Bonnie Vculek / Enid News & Eagle)

In a country that says it values and supports military veterans, the way the Department of Veterans Affairs is treating atomic veterans is bordering on shameful.

The atomic veterans are men ordered to participate in a series of tests between 1945 and 1962 in which the U.S. military subjected troops to atomic blasts to observe the effects of radiation. The National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV) estimates 195,000 to 300,000 U.S. troops were subjected to atomic testing during that timeframe.

One of them is Richard Simpson, of Hillsdale, who was a Marine Corps platoon sergeant when he participated in Operation Upshot-Knothole in 1953. He and his men were placed in trenches about 500 feet from a 350-foot tower, on which an atomic bomb was detonated.

Since then, Simpson has had quite the health ordeal. Growths were removed from Simpson’s head, arms and hands, and a Navy corpsman had to scrape dying flesh away from a discolored area near his groin every several days for about three months.

As the years have gone on, Simpson has had more than 30 cancerous lesions removed on his arms, face, ears and back. Cancer also developed in the spot near Simpson’s groin.

The issues with that spot, and Simpson’s left leg, are what have now led to problems with the VA.

A couple of years after the atomic test Simpson said a Navy corpsman noticed his gait was off balance. An exam revealed his left leg — the one that had the dead flesh removed repeatedly after the atomic testing — was three-quarters of an inch shorter than his right leg. Simpson said the Navy doctor who examined him said his leg didn’t grow with the rest of his body because of damage to the bone in the spot where the flesh had died. In April 2017, Simpson was awarded a 40 percent disability rating by the VA, but that didn’t include any rating for his leg.

He went to the VA Medical Center in Oklahoma City last June to have his leg evaluated, along with lesions on his arms and back. Simpson said the entire exam took seven minutes, and the doctor reviewing his claim declined to look at lesions on his back or at the spot on his upper left leg.

Last October, Simpson was sent to another VA review appointment with a contract provider in Enid. Simpson said that doctor also declined to examine the spot on his leg.

In January, Simpson went to a third appointment, this time at the VA Medical Center in Oklahoma City. Simpson said that doctor did examine the spot on his upper left leg and told him “there’s no meat there, I can feel the bone.” However, in a letter dated March 29, VA denied Simpson’s claim for his leg, references medical treatment records from Oct. 31, 2018, through Dec. 26, 2018 — a date range which would not include that last visit, when his leg was examined.

To top it off, none of the records used by VA to deny his claim made any mention of him being exposed to radiation in the atomic bomb tests. VA denied Simpson’s claim on his leg because Simpson had broken that leg when he was 15. That makes no sense, since the Marines accepted Simpson and would have ruled him ineligible if his left leg was shorter than his at the time he joined.

So far, Simpson hasn’t been able to get much help in his fight with VA. Lawmakers have told Simpson they can’t directly intervene in a VA benefits decision.

This whole situation is not right.

Atomic veterans were put in a dangerous situation and deserve VA benefits for the injuries resulting from their exposure to high levels of radiation.

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